Embrace the dark side

Words by:
John Bennett
Featured in:
March 2014

Night photography made simple(r)
As the dark evenings are still upon us I suspect most people can’t wait to get home and curl up on the settee in front of the TV. But if like me you have a passion for night photography you’ll be rushing back out again with a big smile on your face.

I know some experienced photographers who are fazed by night photography; they seem to think that it is very complicated, but it isn’t. It is also easy to get really dramatic results if you follow a few simple rules. There are many wonderful places for night photography in Lincolnshire, and I honestly believe that Lincoln itself compares well with iconic night time subjects such as New York or Hong Kong. We might not have skyscrapers, but they haven’t got the cathedral and narrow cobbled streets that glisten after rain.

Many of you will have received an all-singing, all-dancing DSLR camera for Christmas, so hopefully this article will also help you get started, especially if you felt demoralised the moment you saw the foot-thick instruction manual! I will try to avoid too much technical information, just enough to make sense and guide you through the process. In my experience the best way to learn about your camera is to take lots of photographs, not to try and read every page of the manual.

One of the many side effects of night photography is that it will help you understand the relationship between the light and shutter speed, and that is about as technical as I’ll get here.

So what cameras are we talking about? Clearly a DSLR is going to be best, and there are many models to choose from, with more and more sophisticated ones being unveiled all the time. But these instructions will translate just as well to many point and shoot cameras too. The first thing most people associate with night photography is a tripod, but I hope to convince you that you can get great images without one. Don’t get me wrong, tripods are an essential tool for the photographer – I own two – but who wants to carry one around if you can get away without it?

It is stating the obvious to say that there is a lot less light around at night compared to daytime, and the camera takes that into account for you. One of the ways it does this is by turning the flash on, but this is only of any use if you’re taking photos of people or objects close to the camera, and does nothing to illuminate a wider scene. So you need to get away from the auto settings, and for the purposes of this article you just need to find out how to choose shutter priority mode, one of several modes that disable the flash.

In shutter priority you control how long the shutter is open, while the camera automatically adjusts the other settings accordingly. The longer the shutter is open the more light is allowed in, and vice versa. Obviously, at night you need the shutter to be open longer to accommodate the lower light levels, which causes an instant problem, movement blur. Anything that moves while the camera is open will be blurred, but we can use that to our advantage.

The shutter speed is displayed on the camera in fractions of a second, or whole seconds when needed. But you can also hear the difference between fast and slow shutter speeds. A fast speed is heard as a single click, and the slower it gets the more you will hear two distinct clicks as the shutter opens and closes. Even in broad daylight a fast moving object like a racing car will be blurred unless you use a very fast shutter speed, so at night minimal movement will result in a blurred image. Even with a static subject, a shaky hand will result in a blurred photo with slow shutter speeds, which is where a tripod comes into its own, but there are many effective tripod substitutes, as I will describe in due course.

The first thing most people try when they take their camera out at night is light streaks, so that is where I’ll start too. Multicoloured lines of car lights streaking across a photo at night can be very dramatic, especially if you find the right place to shoot. A classic night time photograph is Lincoln Cathedral from the Broadgate footbridge, with the traffic passing by underneath. If you time it right you might capture dashed orange lines from car indicator lights, and the shot of traffic lights with all three coloured lights showing is fun – at least the first couple of times you see it. This can be a problem with night time light streak photos; they are a bit of a cliché, so try to look for unique scenes and be creative with composition. Curved lines of light are more effective than straight ones; height offers more interesting perspectives; buses are more interesting than cars, especially double deckers; and emergency vehicles with flashing lights add extra drama. Lines coming diagonally towards the viewer are far more interesting than those coming straight towards you, and lines going across the shot can be quite boring, so try to avoid those. The longer the shutter speed, the longer the light streaks, although that is also dependent on the speed of traffic of course. It is fun to experiment with different shutter speeds, which will help you understand how you can control the final image. I would recommend at least a five second exposure, but longer will probably give a more interesting photograph.

Whatever you do, the camera must be steady for these shots to work, so the longer the exposure the more you risk some camera movement. Remember, the slightest camera movement will result in even static objects being blurred, and will make the photo look terrible.

Flat topped walls or railings are just as effective as a tripod to keep the camera rock-steady, and there is usually something handy if you look hard enough. Some people carry a small beanbag to rest the camera on, I often use my rucksack to create a stable platform. Or use a tripod if you can be bothered to carry one – the choice is yours.

Use the self-timer, or a remote shutter release, to avoid movement from pressing the shutter manually. A word of warning: beware vibration, it is the enemy of long exposure photography. It can come from many sources and thwart even the most expensive tripod or rock solid support. The aforementioned Broadgate footbridge is very prone to this, from heavy lorries passing underneath, or even pedestrians on the bridge itself. So don’t just rely on one photo to capture the scene, take several to allow for all eventualities and potential problems. If you think you felt a vibration then you can be sure that the camera was affected by it.

So long as the camera doesn’t move, any stationary object will be sharp no matter how long the shutter is open. Moving objects will be blurred, even completely invisible. You need to repeat this principle to yourself until it is firmly embedded in your thinking, and night time photography will become much easier.

Ghostly images of people can be very effective at night too, especially as some of the older Lincoln streets are pretty spooky to begin with after dark. At the shutter speeds you were using for light streaks, five seconds and longer, moving people will be invisible or barely recognisable smudges on the image, so you need to shoot a bit faster. At around 1/8th of a second they will blurred around the edges but still clearly recognisable as people. As you approach one second shutter speeds they will start to disappear completely, so find a happy medium somewhere in the middle. Again, experiment as much as you can until you learn to control the results better. Movement towards or away from the camera will be less blurred than movement across the scene. The same principle applies though – keep the camera steady.

When I was learning photography many years ago, I was told that most people can hold a camera steady as slow as 1/30th of a second; slower than that and you need a tripod. This is a very rough rule of thumb – there are others, but suffice it to say that with care you can do better than that. It is a personal thing, some of us have steadier hands than others, but with practice and crafty technique you can shoot handheld quite a bit slower.

It is difficult to shoot at slow shutter speeds while standing up unsupported, so lean against a wall or lamp post. Sit down to shoot with your elbows braced on your knees, not much fun on cold wet cobbles, but we all suffer for our art! As a rule you can shoot a lot slower handheld with a wide-angled lens than a long one. I know I can shoot as slow as 1/6th of a second with an 18mm lens and some support, but with a 200mm lens this would be impossible.

Obviously if you are using a tripod, or resting the camera on a flat wall or railing top, you shouldn’t have to worry about this. But I find shooting handheld wherever possible gives me greater freedom of composition and enables me to shoot scenes without a long set-up time. A lot of this is down to personal preference – experiment and find what technique suits you best.

It is a good idea to start shooting at night in an area you know well, so you will have an idea what to expect, maybe even scout it out in daylight. One thing for certain is don’t wait until you get out in the cold, wet darkness before familiarising yourself with the camera settings you are going to use.

Another tip is, do not be put off by bad weather. It isn’t fun shooting in the rain, and you should avoid getting drops on the lens of course, but if you can find a dry sheltered spot and shoot out into the rain you can get dramatic results. I love going out after rain; cobbles are transformed when they are wet, they shimmer and glow and give some great reflections. Even boring city centre slabs are transformed when they are wet. My personal favourite weather condition though is fog, which is fantastic to shoot in at night; it creates an otherworldly atmosphere all of its own. The actual air in the historic area of Lincoln seems to have an amazing golden glow on foggy evenings, from the Cathedral floodlights and old limestone buildings – it really is magical. Also, shoot around water, the reflections of buildings lit up at night literally double the fun. Lincoln’s Brayford Pool is spectacular at night, and the University campus on the south bank offers some striking modern architecture in the dark.

For the most dramatic results try to combine factors such as light streaks, ghostly people, bright light sources, reflections, wet cobbles, colours and shadows. Silhouette people against bright backgrounds, such as streetlights or windows, which should direct their shadows towards the camera. Get down to ground level for some shots, or close to a window that can offer both support to lean on and interesting reflections and perspectives. Generally be creative and experiment, I can’t say this often enough.

Remember what results you got with what shutter speeds, be prepared for some poor results, but remember what worked and what didn’t. Try to work out why some shots worked and others didn’t. Is the image blurred throughout? If so the camera probably moved, why? At night the auto focus can struggle to latch onto something, so be prepared for that too, and use manual focus if necessary. If the image is too dark then you need to shoot at a slower shutter speed to allow more light in. If it is too bright, try a faster shutter speed to compensate. In particular, learn how to support yourself so that you can successfully shoot handheld at slower shutter speeds.

There are many other variables, I can hear fellow professionals screaming at me about them, but I’ll save those for another day. This should be enough to go on for now, happy shooting!

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